in the Dirt: Gardening for Kids
By Jacqueline Rupp
From bare trees and
gnarled sticks poking out of the hard grassless dirt
burst forth an explosion of blooms and buds, bugs, and wildlife.
This is the
time when nature comes alive, awakened by the warm breezes, from
slumber. The outdoors becomes populated once again with gardeners
and digging, pruning and trimming. How appropriate that April
National Gardening Month. Organized by the National Gardening
(NGA), the program's goal is to "grow more gardeners," big
Gardening can be a great activity for children of all ages. It
a minimal investment but will entertain kids while educating
them about the
world around them.
There are many activities
that you can enjoy with your children that involve
gardening. Approach gardening as a treat for the senses. As Barbara
Richardson of the NGA's "Kids Gardening" department
says, "You don't
necessarily have to get them involved in doing garden chores,
let them see how much enjoyment you get from your activities
in the yard and
outdoors. Encourage their opinions of a flower's fragrance, that
placement, or the flavor of the cherry tomatoes, and they may
come around to
asking for their own garden bed to plant."
Other activities she suggests
include taking a family trip to a local public
garden, especially one that has special kids events, volunteering
at a park,
joining a community garden, planting vegetables to donate to
a local food
bank, or browsing through a farmers' market and speaking with
Later you can cook up a meal with your kids using the market
Richardson adds, "Talk
about the differences between food that's grown near
home vs. that which is shipped from far away." She also
unstructured explorations of the outdoors, looking, for example,
at a bug's
path or which flowers a butterfly likes best. Kids can also make
comparisons, like which leaves look similar, which plants grow
in the sun,
or which thrive in the shade.
Garden activities should
be personalized to a child's developmental stage
for safety and interest. For preschoolers, the NGA suggests keeping
simple: Pulling weeds, collecting seeds from fruits and veggies,
with the dirt. The main focus at this stage should be on safety
accompanying little ones on their explorations. Teach kids at
this age about
their environment through simple stories. When they are a little
focus can shift to creating a place of their own in the garden,
like a fort
or special garden patch. School-aged children can begin their
either indoors or out. As they grow, the garden can become more
elaborate using graph paper to plan the garden, learning about
heights and sun needs.
When teaching children
about gardening, Richardson encourages parents to
teach ecologically responsible practices. She says "using
solutions to pest, weed, and disease problems sends the wrong
kids. That's not to say that people should just use organic pest
products instead of the standard poisons -- the idea is to create
system that resists attack. It's also important to show children
that a few
pests aren't necessarily a threat to the garden, that plants
can tolerate a
little bit of chewing and still produce a bountiful harvest." For
on this topic, go to Safe Solutions to Garden Challenges at
So what are the best types
of plants to begin with? You can easily buy
annuals like marigolds and impatiens just about anywhere these
are hardy and work well both indoors and out, from seeds or already
To really grab your kids' attention, go for the show stoppers
-- plants with
great big flowers, such as the sunflower, or easy-to-grow tasty
like cherry tomatoes.
The NGA also suggests
the great "Atlantic Giant" pumpkin,
unusual varieties like purple carrots, and "Easter Egg" radishes.
interesting varieties include the "Mimosa Pudica.” When
you touch it, the
leaves close. Bleeding hearts are on the list too, since the
flowers can be
dissected to uncover a surprise. (Please note: Bleeding heart
roots are poisonous.) For fragrance, the NGA suggests peonies,
lavender, and lemon balm. To attract butterflies, go native and
specimens that naturally grow in your area. The NGA also recommends
dill, milkweed, and thistles.
For indoor planting, a
good place to begin is with herbs, such as basil,
rosemary, dill, and chives. Many garden stores now sell kits
everything you'll need. Kids' gardening tools are also easy to
find, as well
as specialty merchandise, like kids' gardening gloves and hats.
Go to the
NGA's www.kidsgardening.com for more information on gardening
Here you'll also find more recommendations, such as for aromatic
bloomers, and activities, like making and baking a compost "torte."
When out in the garden
with kids, safety is always a prime concern for
parents. To make sure your outdoor projects stay enjoyable, follow
seven tips for safe gardening:
1. Avoid using toxic garden
chemicals. Rather, try natural alternatives.
2. Use tools appropriate for children, like plastic rakes
3. Test your soil for lead.
4. Always supervise your child when using water. Pay close
using buckets or around ponds and water features.
5. To protect against ticks and Lyme disease, wear light-colored
clothing with long socks and always check yourself after gardening.
6. Use sunscreen and wear good sun hats.
7. Teach your children about poisonous plants and those that
reactions. Learn to identify poison ivy and its bothersome
Gardening can be a fun
activity for kids that begins a life-long appreciation of nature.
As Richardson puts it, "The cycles
of life --
watching a seed sprout, grow, flower, produce seed, and return
to the soil
to nourish the next crop of flowers -- is a metaphor kids can
relate to their own lives." She says gardening can teach
kids "that there
IS a world around them, and that they are part of it. All creatures
planet depend on plants for food and clean air, even clean water.
outdoors is a beautiful place, full of adventure, to be enjoyed
Jacqueline Rupp is a freelance
writer from Philadelphia, PA, who specializes
in parenting, crafts, and regional topics.